The Dark Side of Self-Improvement

inspiro
Literal perfection from Inspirobot

Self-improvement (or personal development or self-help) seems, on the face of it, like a good thing. Who doesn’t want to be better? We should all be better, right? (This should not be confused with “be best”, something that will never not make me laugh.)

The personal development industry is a $9.9 billion industry predicated on two simple messages: 1. You are not good enough. 2. You should always strive to be better. Continue reading “The Dark Side of Self-Improvement”

Advertisements

“He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions

[CN: Discussion of violence against women, racism]

There are a few courses I took in undergrad and grad school that have especially stuck with me through the years. One that I think about often was an upper-level Women’s Studies course called Monstrous Women which looked at the ways we frame women who transgress the bounds that society places before them. And how women who fail to perform “womanhood” adequately (whether through eschewing motherhood, being overtly aggressive, responding to male violence with violence) are transformed into “monsters”–both as a control mechanism and because we don’t know how to reconcile women who don’t perform mainstream womanhood in our brains.

Continue reading ““He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions”

In the wake of catastrophe, a few thoughts

courage

If you have found your way to this blog you are likely, like me, devastated. And afraid. You made it through a never-ending campaign of bigotry and hatred and boasts of sexual predation only to be faced with four more years of it, with an emboldened contingent of racists and misogynists and rapists who will see themselves reflected in the White House come January.

I’ve shared a few thoughts about what this means and, if you’re a fellow white person, you may not like them. But please, please don’t turn away. Please read it and if you find yourself angry or defensive sit with it. Continue reading “In the wake of catastrophe, a few thoughts”

Seven Self-Care Strategies for Those Struggling

67941f5bf35b1f05b89c06d58b593a53
My phone’s lock-screen and my touchstone for the last several months.

Just about everyone I know is struggling right now–between brutal acts of police violence against Black people in the US, the Orlando shooting, climate catestrophe, the spectre of a Donald Trump presidency, Brexit, and everything else we’re inundated with constantly, people are struggling with self-care, mental health, and just being okay.

Because I talk a lot about self-care people seem to assume I’m a champ at it. Rather, I talk a lot about it because it’s something I struggle with, and something I see as a fundamental part of doing justice work. So in that spirit, I’m offering a few of the things I’ve been using in the hopes they may be helpful for others. They may not ring true for you and that’s totally cool, we all have different needs and histories and self-care will look different for all of us, but they’re here if you want to give them a go. Continue reading “Seven Self-Care Strategies for Those Struggling”

On Trigger Warnings

[Content Note: Sexualized violence.]

Working on a college campus, at a sexual assault support centre, I am acutely aware of the ongoing conversations around trigger warnings in academia. Though the furor has slowed of late, I read just about every think piece coming down on either side of the issue.

The two sides seem to boil down to this argument:

  1. At least 1 in 2 to 4 cisgender women*, 1 in 5 cisgender men, and 1 in 2 trans folk will experience sexualized violence in their lifetime. It is safe to assume there is at least one survivor in every room. Post-traumatic responses are pervasive, can be debilitating, and can be with survivors for life. Therefore, giving students a head’s up before showing a film with a graphic scene of sexualized violence in class, being very clear on your syllabus what types of material will be taught and possibly providing alternatives to students who find certain material triggering is part of doing education responsibly and sensitively.

Vs.

  1. Trigger warnings are akin to censorship and places of higher education need to be free to explore difficult ideas. Furthermore, if someone is so fragile that seeing a scene of sexual assault is going to ruin their day, they shouldn’t be in school but should be in intensive therapy. Trigger warnings are infantilizing and I teach grown-ups. And, finally, everyone could be triggered by something. Am I not supposed to talk about anything? Or put a trigger warning before every topic ever?

To be very clear, I come down firmly on the side of trigger warnings and I will explain why, dealing with each of the “anti-“ points in turn. Although it was tempting to let loose my snark, I am actually attempting to portray and attend to these concerns in good faith, which cannot be said for a lot of the anti-trigger warning articles I have seen.

First, places of higher education absolutely do need to be free to explore difficult ideas. But that exploration needn’t come at the consequence of the mental well-being of survivors. Giving students both a clear and transparent syllabus at the start of class as well as being flexible if issues do come up during the semester is not censorship. No one is saying that instructors can’t teach what they want to teach, they are asking them to apply a little empathy and compassion to the way that they teach it. I once took a class with approximately 99% women (remember that one in three statistic) in it. The instructor showed us the movie Teeth, which includes multiple graphic depictions of sexual assault. Neither the syllabus nor the instructor’s description in any way prepared the room for what was to follow. Looking around the room at the end of class I saw several shell-shocked faces. (Note: “shell-shock” was one of the precursors to the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) In a room of about 45 students, I’d guess at least 10 were actively triggered after watching that movie.

Now, I’m not saying the professor shouldn’t have shown that film. It was an interesting (though difficult) film that raised questions that were very much in line with the course. What she could have done, however, was to mark in the syllabus that it showed multiple graphic sexual assaults, and offered flexibility were anyone to speak with her privately to express concern that they wanted to take the course but worried watching it would be too triggering for them.

Next, I often see this idea that someone dealing with post-traumatic responses should be cloistered, far from society until they’re “less fragile.” This is a problem for several reasons. One is that between 10-15% of North Americans are estimated to be affected by PTSD at any one time, including up to 50% of female rape survivors**. Extrapolating from that, we’re being told up to 15-25% of cis-gender women, 10% of cis-gender men and up to 25% of trans people should just retire from society until they are “over” PTSD. That is absurd. Not only do some people never have their PTSD resolve, others may no longer fit the diagnostic criteria but still have post-traumatic responses that can be triggered and ruin their day (week, month). Beyond that, survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence are at higher risk of additional violence and female survivors of violence are at much higher risk of living in poverty (trans* folks in general face disproportionate rates of poverty and marginalization as well, it’s likely male survivors also face increased risk of poverty). So asking survivors dealing with active PTSD to retire from life is not only ridiculous (and discriminatory) but is asking them to make themselves more isolated and thus at further risk of violence.

The other important piece to note is that many people dealing with post-traumatic responses are incredibly capable at meeting their day-to-day responsibilities, which can include school, work, raising a family, volunteer work and all the other things that people have on their plates. Not only have survivors often been dealing with PTSD for years, but they may have experienced ongoing abuse that they had to endure while continuing to meet all of their other life demands. Framing survivors as “fragile” or “delicate” not only does a disservice to them but is plainly wrong. I have worked with hundreds of survivors of sexual and intimate partner abuse over the years and they are routinely incredibly resilient, having survived things most non-survivors can’t even imagine. It occurs to me that the fragile designation may be more apt for the person who is so rigid they can’t bear to add “trigger warning: graphic scenes of sexualized violence” to a line on their syllabus.

The idea that trigger warnings are infantilizing is honestly puzzling to me. It seems to me that making an informed choice about your ability to interact with content that may trigger a reflexive nervous system cascade that includes neurotransmitters and the endocrine system is the epitome of “adult.” Taking stock of your resilience, known triggers, coping strategies, and general well-being is high-level functioning. Which is why I find the term “infantilizing” so curious. It seems to have the quiet implication that survivors should shut up already because we’re tired of hearing about sexualized violence and having to think about how our actions potentially impact the simply staggering number of survivors who are out there. With a giant heaping tablespoon of shame added to the mix.

Finally, the idea that every topic ever could be a trigger to someone and thus no one will ever be able to talk about anything ever again is a red-herring at best. At worst, it is disingenuous derailing. No one is saying that every topic needs to be treated with kid gloves. In fact, those of us in favour of trigger warnings aren’t even asking that sexual assault be treated with kid gloves. Rather, we are asking people to briefly attend to the very real impacts of sexualized violence and the huge number of survivors amongst us. We are asking, literally, for one sentence in a 9 page syllabus. We are asking simply for a detailed description of the media students will interact with so they can make an informed decision about their education and their mental health. We are asking, simply, for a little bit of empathy.

——-

*Statistics are, for myriad reasons, hard to come by. My feeling, having worked in the field for years and focused my graduate research on it is that the number is a lot closer to 1 in 2 cis women than 1 in 4, given that commonly accepted statistics say that 1 in 4 girls will experience sexual violence before the age of 18 and another 1 in 4 will experience sexual violence between 15-24. Of course, there may be a significant overlap (given that prior experiences of sexual violence increase the statistical likelihood of experiencing further violence). Statistics Canada did a one-time Violence Against Women Survey in 1993 which found 1 in 3 women had experienced sexualized violence, while 1 in 2 had experienced some form of intimate/sexualized violence.

**Targeted News Service. (June 3, 2011) Exercise Should Be Considered for PTSD.

Food Rules: The good, the bad, and the ugly

To Thine Own Self Be TrueFood rules are a pretty contentious topic–some people live and die by them. Some feel that healthy eating habits (especially for those in recovery from disordered eating) can’t include them. Some like to reframe rules as “guidelines” and some seem try to delude both themselves and their audiences that their food rules are different and, no matter how restrictive they seem, they aren’t like that other person’s restrictive food rules.

If you’re on Facebook (or the internet) you’ve encountered a plethora of food rules: Whole30, Paleo, plant-based, vegan, raw vegan, “clean” eating, Weight Watchers, intermittent fasting, etc. etc.

I’ve tried more than my fair share of rules: raw vegan (cold all the time but felt great–possibly because the body’s response to starvation is a push of energy); Eat to Live (that way madness and–with 3 pounds of produce and a cup of beans a day–pooping lie); extreme calorie restriction; Geneen Roth’s (generally sane) guidelines; obsessive calorie tracking; and the one freeing but problematic rule: fuck it all. I’ve tried intuitive eating (and had a fair bit of success). I’ve done low(ish) carb (as an ethical vegan there is only so low one’s carbs can go). I’ve done low GI. I’ve paired both extreme calorie restriction and a more moderate intake with obsessive exercise. I’ve toyed with orthorexia.

What I’m saying is, I’ve tried a lot of rules. They’ve all, with the exception of intuitive eating, been a substitute for the control I was lacking in life, and a tool with which to punish myself.

I, like many of us, was never taught or modelled healthy eating/food patterns. So, when I’ve thrown off the shackles of culturally supported food bullshit, whether out of burgeoning self-love or politics (and, let me be clear, my self-love is intimately tied to–and a result of–my feminist politics) I have found myself floundering. What does a healthy relationship with food actually look like? What is normal eating?

This is a remarkably stressful question. Because, really, in this culture at least, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. If I were to try to answer that question it would look something like this: a pattern of eating that keeps you nourished without angst or worry.

But what does that look like in practice?

I’ve been working through Making Peace with Food by Susan Kano. It has been revealing and hope-inducing. From it, I have incorporated three rules into my life. Rules that feel sustainable. Rules that give me a framework within which I can eat with freedom and care for myself, by nourishing both my body and my soul. The rules I’ve incorporated are:

1. When you are craving something, eat it. Indulge that craving. Enjoy it whole-heartedly.
2. When you’re not craving something particular, eat health-promoting food (fruits and veg, whole grains, protein, etc.).
3. When you start feeling stressed or compulsive about food flip the script from “Can I resist to this?” to “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes go to number 1. If not, go do something else.

In order to embrace these rules I have had to (start to) accept that weight-loss might not be in the cards. That my choice might be sanity at this size or angst at, well, this size. And that I can focus on a healthy and nourishing relationship with food and I can focus on getting really strong, fit, and capable, and that the mental/emotional work is to accept that my body will do what it does within those habits.

And that sounds like a pretty damn good place to be.

Self-Care Minimums and Dealing With Depression

self-careThis topic has come up multiples over the past week or so, both with clients and friends, so I thought I’d write about it.

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with depression is that it not only saps your motivation, but it makes you believe things that are untrue–things about yourself and your worth, things about your place in your community, and things about how to take care of yourself.

I like to broach this topic by sharing that I’ve noticed in myself and others that there are depression-promoting behaviours and depression-challenging behaviours. And that the really hard part is that depression makes us think depression-promoting behaviours are in our best interest.

When you’re depressed (or anxious, or triggered), staying in all weekend, not answering the phone, binge-watching TV, and not getting dressed sounds great. It might even sound like “self-care.” And aspects of it can be self-care. But self-care is not just about soothing yourself in the moment, it’s about setting up the supports and structures that let you be okay enough in your day-to-day life. So while depression says “let’s watch Buffy instead of doing the laundry” the reality is that tomorrow you’re going to wake up to clothes everywhere, nothing clean, and one more thing you haven’t done–which will add to the guilt and shame that seem to come hand-in-hand with depression.

On the other hand, depression-challenging behaviours are hard and not fun in the moment, but set you up to a) have small victories (SO important when dealing with mental health issues), b) have some structure and routine in your life, and c) set up the support and structure to let you deal with the root of your issues or cope with issues that aren’t going away anytime soon.

Going grocery shopping and eating enough nourishing food can feel insurmountable, but are going to be a lot better for your mental and physical health than subsisting on what you can get at the gas station at 2 am. Tidying your house and making sure you have clean dishes and clean clothes might feel like climbing Everest but the pay-off is immense (for me, at least, just being around clutter and dirty dishes is stressful). Reaching out to a friend or setting up a therapy appointment can feel like the hardest thing you will ever do, but they provide you the support not only to deal with what’s going on, but to have positive social interactions and, with your friends, to have some time when you aren’t “person dealing with depression/trauma/anxiety” you’re just “person who is hilarious and loves ice cream and action movies.”

I am, thankfully, in a really good place with my mental health, but I have a really emotionally demanding job that requires a lot of self-care, and I need to be mindful that my self-care is actually helping me to be sustainable in this job rather than applying a bandaid to deal with the stress of yesterday. To that end, I have “Self-Care Minimums” that I strive to hit every day, and I encourage my clients to consider if they would be useful for them. For me, my self-care minimums are:

AM
-Sunlight or SAD lamp in the morning
-Morning medications/supplements
-Emptying the dishrack
-Morning stretch/flow
Anytime
-Intentional movement/exercise
PM
-Cleaning the kitchen
-Tidying the living room
-Start bedtime routine at 9:30
-Turn off all screens at 10

These are the minimums I’ve established I need to feel good in my house (waking up to a clean kitchen is so important to my day) and good in my body (getting enough good-quality sleep, moving my body), to be able to show up every day for my clients, and to be able to show up every day for myself.

For some people these minimums may feel like maximums. For someone who’s really struggling their daily minimums might be:

-Brush teeth
-Talk to another person in person
-10 minute walk
-Eat breakfast

Your minimums will change with your mental and physical health, resilience, and individual life circumstances, but I think they can be a good way to make sure that you are including some depression-challenging behaviours (and/or sustainable mental health-promoting behaviours) in your life when things are hard, not just when things are good.

———-

This piece was inspired, in part, by this great piece called Everything is Awful and I’m Not Okay: Questions to ask before giving up which I have been recommending all over the place.

I am a big fan of lists and especially of lists that give me the satisfaction of checking things off of them. To that end, I used this template to make my Daily Minimums List, laminated it, and stuck it on my fridge.

Don’t Listen To Me, I’m Just Some Lady On The Internet

If you are someone who uses the internet to look at recipes, or workouts, or workout gear, or seek workout inspiration, or diet info, or pretty much anything targeted toward women you’ve seen them. Tonnes of them. Life coaches; holistic coaches; health coaches; health and wellness coaches; holistic health and wellness coaches; holistic health, wellness, and life coaches.

And if you’re anything like me, when you see that in their “about” section you think to yourself “hmmm. What the fuck does that actually mean??”

See, anyone can call themselves a coach. Watch this: I’m a feminist blogger coach. Boom! Now to do some social media marketing…

Now, I truly believe that all of these various coaches are well-meaning. They feel like they’ve figured something out and they want to share that with the world. Often, it seems, they have overcome (whether fully or partially) a disordered relationship with food and want to share that newfound freedom with others. That is commendable and lovely. It is also really, really worrying to me.

First, my observations about coaches: they are almost always middle-class white ladies who are dissatisfied with the jobs available to them and wanting to both help others and be their own bosses. I can dig that. I’m a white lady who is just about to squeak into the middle-class with the start of a new job (and I was raised culturally, if not always financially, middle-class). I am often dissatisfied with the jobs available to me and would be happy to be my own boss. I am also committed to helping people. I get it. (I also think this can be tied to the neoliberalization of health–in short, it eschews regulation, mandatory training, and any kind of job stability or benefits while putting the onus for health on the individual in very visible ways (health coaches are pretty much always thin, conventionally attractive white women)–but that’s a post for another day.)

But here’s where I have a huge concern with coaches. Anyone can be a coach. There is no legal restriction on who can be a coach. There is no regulatory body that ensures all coaches are certified. And then there’s that question…certified in what? There are lots of health coaching certifications. They seem to span from a weekend to months. But, to paraphrase some graphic novel I haven’t read, who certifies the certifiers (sorry)? What does it actually mean to be a certified health coach? Who are you capable of responsibly and ethically working with?

I’ve worked in the anti-violence movement for a long time. I have been a victim support worker. I have a masters degree that focused on the intersections of mental health, physical health, and policy. What I’m saying is, I know a lot about mental health, I know a lot about how to support people who have experienced horrifically traumatic events. I have a lot of training and even train others. But I am not a counsellor. I am not a psychologist. There is a whole lot of mental health stuff that I am not qualified to do and it would be unethical for me to do it.

And that’s what concerns me. I recently read an article by a health and wellness coach who specializes in treating eating disorders. Red flags started shooting up left and right for me. Trained and registered therapists (psychologists, clinical counsellors, clinical social workers) need years and years of specialized training in order to be able to work with people with eating disorders. They also have their own clinical supervision which ensures they are not only providing good, competent, ethical care, but they they themselves are mentally healthy enough to be working with clients. I have seen far too many health and wellness coaches who seem to have their own unresolved eating disorders putting that skewed information out into the ether (and, presumably, into their clients’ lives) and that is profoundly worrying to me.

Therapy is not one-size-fits all, and it’s certainly not a perfect field. But it is backed up by rigorous training, it’s well regulated, and it has a lot of academic literature to support the efficacy of many modalities. If I want to visit a clinical counsellor I can check with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors and ensure that she is registered with them, which means she has at least a Master’s degree in an approved field, has references which speak to her abilities as a counsellor, has completed a 100 hour practicum, has a broad base of skills and knowledge, and has pledged to follow a strict ethical code.

Whereas someone who lists themself as a life coach or health and wellness coach could have some kind of certification or none. And if they do have a certification it’s quite difficult to find out what that actually entails (I’ve tried). And, unlike with a registered clinical counsellor or psychologist, they have a lot of leeway in what they do. An RCC or psychologist has bounds they can’t step outside of–they can’t start giving you dietary advice or prescribing workouts, or any number of things–while a health coach can tell you pretty much anything they want to, regardless of the efficacy, safety, and sanity of their recommendations.

Now, this isn’t to slag off every “coach” out there. As I said, I think they are well-intentioned and truly want to help people. And sometimes having a facebook page or blog that focuses on movement that feels good and mostly whole foods is just what you need for motivation and inspiration. But I think it gets into dicier territory when money starts exchanging hands and recommendations are being given.

But don’t listen to me, I’m just some lady on the internet.

On Worth, Body-Image, and Beauty

This is an old piece I wrote for a now-defunct blog but it is as true now as it was then and a good reminder to all of us. Our words and actions help shape our realities, so let’s shape them with as much kindness for ourselves and each other as possible.
=============

A very long time ago I made a decision that I would not indulge in negative body talk out loud with other women. I would not let it be a form of bonding, and I would not bear witness to its use for that purpose by others. A gentle but firm “hey, that’s not a very nice way to talk about your body” or even a “hey, I don’t do negative body talk” is surprisingly effective. And it miraculously cuts a tension in the room you weren’t even aware was there. It’s like all the women collectively breathe out. Whoosh.

And because of that decision I came to realize that I can’t have one standard for myself and my friends and another for celebrities and strangers. I can’t say that I deserve kindness while snarking on some other woman’s body for failing to live up to some impossible, made-up, oppressive standard (even if they are, as celebrities, a hell of a lot closer than I’ll ever get). And so I stopped. I stopped commenting to myself and others that so and so’s nose is weird, or so and so has gained a bunch of weight, or that actress x isn’t even hot so why are people fawning over her?

And the amazing thing is that when I stopped saying it I stopped thinking it. When I put body snarking and shaming off limits verbally it followed naturally that it was off limits internally—for self and for others. And here is where the real magic happened: when I stopped snarking, when I stopped looking for ways to attack other women for the ways I felt I was failing, for the things I was ashamed of, I started seeing how much beauty there is in the world that isn’t captured in mainstream conceptions of it.

I saw beauty in women who look nothing like the women on TV. I saw beauty in women who are curvy, in women who are fat, in women who are thin, I saw beauty in women whose disabilities and/or ethnicities and/or gender-nonconformity challenge the mainstream conception of beauty. And I started to see that beauty existed in women who looked just like me. And in women who looked nothing like me.

And when I noticed those bodies so similar to mine and the grace with which they can move, the beauty they can exhibit, I realized that mine too can do that. That my body, too, can be beautiful.

That doesn’t mean I always see beauty in my body. It doesn’t mean my body is always beautiful. But finding the beauty in my body was not just powerful, it felt intensely political. It felt radical. It felt like another small way in which I can stand up and say “I’m here. You can’t ignore me. I am here and I matter and I demand to be counted.”

On Finding Magic

I’m interested in embodiment, both personally and professionally. My masters research project studies the role embodiment plays in the wellbeing of survivors of intimate partner violence. My life is spent in pursuit of embodiment.

Menzel (2005) describes embodiment as “a state, and, hopefully, a trait in which one experiences one’s body as an essential aspect of the often interrelated experiences of competence, interpersonal relatedness, power, self-expression, vitality, and well-being” (p. 2). She lists the fundamental aspects of embodiment as being “respect for and care of the body, physical freedom, instrumentality and functionality, empowerment, a relative lack of externally oriented self-consciousness about the body, the ability to know and voice bodily experiences and needs, and a deep mind/body connection” (Menzel, 2005, p. 2).

I think of embodiment as a deep knowing of the body–understanding and respecting its abilities and limitations–and a sense of coming “home” to the body. And there are many paths to embodiment. My research suggests that certain forms of exercise (strength-training, yoga, martial arts) increase embodiment. My personal experience suggests that getting out into nature increases embodiment.

I grew up in a temperate rainforest. I never feel as embodied, alive, and connected as when I’m walking through a lush green forest in the pouring rain. I went for just such a walk last night and it was truly magical. I don’t mean magical in some supernatural or woo-heavy way, but in the sense that everything quieted down and things felt right in the world for just that moment. It was invigorating and calming at the same time. Grounding and energizing. My shoulders dropped about two inches, my lungs filled up, and I was filled with awe at the beauty I’ve spent much of my life taking for granted. In a word: magical.

How do you find your magic?